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Choosing Happiness: 10 Tips for Learning Optimism (From a girl who’d knock the glass over before she’d admit it̵

Posted Jan 30 2013 12:28am

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“You’re insanely cheerful for someone who has been crapped on by life way more than most people.” The other day I got this text from a friend and I have to say it is one of the nicest compliments anyone’s ever given me. First it invokes my insanity, which we all know and love . Second, it mentions bodily fluids and you know how I love to talk about those – I even did a five-part series for this blog about all the ways one can ooze, stink , leak  or emit in the gym! (Bonus: Not only have I been figuratively crapped on but, thanks to my kids, literally as well!) And third, she mentioned optimism. In relation to me. I was beaming.

And then my friend, who is going through some Seriously Hard Life Stuff, added, “I wish I could be like that!”

YOU CAN!!! I shout-texted her. I know this because I was not always Pollyanna-on-a-pogo-stick. To be called cheerful or optimistic, well, you have no idea what a coup that is for me. Most of you didn’t know me as a teen but I was as angsty as they come. I won’t go into all the details but suffice it to say I spent most of my time in some state of black-eyeliner-illustrated despair. Then in high school, thanks to a patient teacher, I had an epiphany that changed the way I thought about happiness and I spent the next several years actively working to change something that I had once assumed was an intrinsic part of my personality: my deep sadness. This sadness manifested as cynicism, fatalism, poor self-esteem and a willingness to let people use and abuse me. I didn’t like the way I felt but I – fatalistically – thought it was something I couldn’t change. I was wrong. And it’s the thing in my life I’ve been happiest to be wrong about.

While I would disagree with my friend that I’ve gotten more than my fair share of Life Crap (life: a loose-bowel’ed albatross!) – I think that everyone goes through some immensely painful experiences as it’s part and parcel of living – I do think that it is a blessing I’ve been able to take the pain that I’ve been given and use it. (Not ignore it, not lose it, not hide it, not abuse it – just use it.) To be clear: I do not consider myself in any way to be the expert on optimism. But my friend asked me for advice about how I turned my frown upside down (headstands were involved, naturally) and so I offer these few tips and I hope that you all will contribute yours to her as well in the comments!

1. Choose happiness. It sounds so simple (too simple?) but there’s a huge shift that occurs when you realize that while what happens to you isn’t always in your control, your happiness always is. Recognizing this as a conscious choice that we make every day gives the power back to you. It also gives the responsibility back to you too. Once you get this you realize that no one can ever “make” you unhappy because your happiness was never theirs to take! It’s only yours to give. This also means that you never have to be afraid of “reverting” or “losing” your optimism – because if you chose it once, you can choose it again. Free will is an amazing gift.

2. Define what optimism looks like to you. For me being optimistic doesn’t mean hiding my head in the sand, never listening to the news and refusing to get involved in the messy parts of life. For me it means still being realistic and aware but at the same time never losing the belief that, in the end, everything will turn out more beautifully than I ever could have imagined.

3. Establish a framework. Everyone needs something to believe in, a reason to get up in the morning. For me, my LDS (“Mormon”) faith provides this structure. I have a deep trust in God and Jesus Christ that they are not merely puppet masters but are deeply invested in our welfare. I’m not saying you need to share my beliefs but you need to believe in something bigger than yourself. Whether or not you are religious, everyone needs to find their own answers to the questions “Where do I come from?”, “Why am I here?” and “Where am I going?” And tightly linked to that: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” People much smarter than me have examined these questions so much more elegantly than I can so I’ll just say that through a lot of prayer and soul-searching I’ve found my own answers and I hold onto these like a life raft. To me, no suffering is without a purpose, no pain is pointless, no life is not worth living. Everything has meaning – even if I don’t know what it is right now.

4. Assume the best of people. Even – especially – when they don’t believe it themselves. Sure you will be proved wrong sometimes. But how much better is to believe something wonderful and have it happen? Sometimes people rise to meet the expectations placed on them. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, the chance to apologize, the opportunity to be generous. And when you do this it only makes it 100 times sweeter when people give that gift back to you when you screw up (and you will).

5. Reframe. This is the most time intensive part of the process for me – it’s where the real work is done. It’s as simple and as difficult as recognizing every negative thought you have and reframing it a positive light. It’s changing “Why does everyone always leave me?” to “I’m sad this person left me but I’m so fortunate to have so many other loving people in my life.” It’s going from “I’m a horrible person. I’m not good at anything. I deserve to be miserable.” to “I’ve made some mistakes but so has everyone. I have many talents and, like everyone, I deserve to be happy.” I found it useful to write down my negative thoughts on paper and then write down my counter-argument (which is a part of cognitive behavioral therapy for anyone playing armchair psychologist along with me at home!). At first I thought it would be overwhelming; I had sooo many negative thoughts! Daria was me, nerd glasses and all! But after I wrote them down I discovered I really just perseverated over a few major themes. Do you know how many thoughts I came up with? 17. Totally manageable. Write the list – I promise it’s not as scary as you think it is.

6. Give credit for the small things. So much of this is a mental game and it hinges on the tiniest actions. Be gentle with yourself. It’s all a learning process and there is no “failing”. Us black-and-white thinkers like to make it about passing or failing but there is no end, just a beautiful, consistent refining. Part of this for me is keeping a gratitude journal. Every night before bed I write down three things I’m grateful for that day. Sometimes they’re small things (bobby pins are the best invention ever!), sometimes they’re huge (today my baby was born…) but they’re always meaningful and I know I’d forget them if I didn’t write them down. Since this type of journal isn’t a chronological accounting of your life or an exposition of your feelings, I’ve found it’s best to keep it short. I bought a tiny notebook for this reason. If I thought I had to Write! Something! Amazing! every night I’d never do it. But anyone can jot down three things that made them smile that day. If you take only one of my suggestions, take this one. 

7. Read books about others. I love non-fiction. I love it because I love reading about other people’s real lives in all their mundane-ness and spontaneity, all their grit and glory, all their loving and losing. First, this gives me perspective. Everyone suffers and some people suffer unimaginable horrors and still come out the other side amazingly intact. Second, I learn from them how they worked it all out. They didn’t have the benefit of reading their life as a whole while they lived it but we, lucky us, do. So read about people – all kinds of people. Live their lives with them.

8. Serve others. Reading about other people is great but doing things to help them is where the real change happens. Every morning I pray that God will give me the opportunity to help someone. And every day (that I look for it), I’m given it. And I’ve never once regretted it. Nothing makes me feel happier than making someone else happy. And it’s not just me – hundreds of studies have been done about the effects of altruism. Not only is it good for your soul but it’s good for your whole health! People who volunteer live longer, healthier and, yes, happier lives. It doesn’t have to be huge – I’m not telling you to sell all your worldly possessions and join the Peace Corps. Need a place to start? Give someone a sincere compliment today. (Up the ante and compliment a stranger!) Do it. I promise it will make you smile as much as they do.

9. Be prepared. Like I said before, being optimistic means hoping for the best outcome. But it certainly doesn’t preclude preparing for the the worst. Getting prepared – and “getting prepared” is not the same as worrying about it until you’re sick – is a remarkably hopeful act. It means that you believe you can handle whatever comes, that you’re strong enough to weather the storm and flexible enough to be a shoulder to cry on. You can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you respond to it.

10. Ask for help. We’re so afraid to show others our weaknesses. But humans are communal beings. We need each other. Let other people in. Let them see your need. Let them lift you. Sometimes you do the carrying but it’s every bit as gracious to sometimes allow yourself to be carried. Don’t depend on others to make you happy (they can’t no matter how much they may want to) but do depend on others to help carry your burdens so you can make yourself happy. Be vulnerable.

There are so many other little things I could add - find a reason to laugh every day, hug someone, exercise, snap a picture of something beautiful, eat chocolate, adopt a pet, age - but this post has already gotten way too long to be useful I think. (To anyone still reading: I’m impressed. And grateful.) I hope none of this comes off as lecture-y – there’s something terribly gauche about someone crowing about their happiness to someone who isn’t. I’m not saying this easy. Just trying to say that this is something we can change, even if it doesn’t come naturally to us at first. So I’ll leave you with this imperfect list written by an even more imperfect girl – but a girl who can honestly say that she’s happy most of the time.

What would you say to my friend? Has anyone else ever given themselves a major personality overhaul? Do you believe optimism is a learned trait or an inborn predilection?

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